4 Tips For Buying Quality Plant Starts

If you rely on plant nurseries to get your garden started, make sure you pick the best baby plants possible.

by Kevin Fogle
PHOTO: Kevin Fogle

Anticipation of the summer gardening season tends to get every vegetable gardener in a planting fervor. When the first vegetable starts hit the garden center, everyone is primed to purchase and plant. But how do you know which plant starts have the best chances of succeeding? Buying high-quality plant starts puts you on a path to garden success with high dividends of healthy future harvests. Here are some considerations when making your purchases.

1. Choose Your Retailer Wisely

Buying plants at your big-box hardware store may certainly be cheaper than locally owned stores, but the supposed value of your purchase is eroded by poor plant care and pest problems that will often lead to poor productivity in the long run. I highly recommend shopping at an independent garden center, where plants are usually well cared for by knowledgeable staff members. Paying a little more for quality starts is worth it!

2. Look For Stressed Plants

No matter where you purchase, savvy buyers should inspect their potential purchases closely for signs of stress and pests. Watch out for evidence of poor care due to infrequent watering. Starts that show evidence of wilting, yellowish-green leaf discoloration and brown edges around the foliage may have been stressed due to irregular watering or a lack of moisture overall. While many plants that have suffered long-term watering issues will survive, most will never reach their full vigor or productivity levels.

3. Avoid Leggy and Fruiting Starts

A common sight when shopping are tall and leggy starts. These starts have suffered from a lack of light and exerted their energy growing taller to reach any available light. Once transplanted into your garden, these overly tall seedlings will suffer from wind and rain damage, will not grow as strong as normal seedlings, and are prone to increased disease and pest issues.
Also steer clear of plants that are already bearing tomatoes or peppers. Small starts bearing fruit are often a symptom of various plant stresses and not a sign of a healthy plant.

4. Watch Out For Pests

Look for well-watered plant starts with evidence of new growth, but be sure to keep an eye out for pest problems. One of the more common pest issues when purchasing nursery vegetable stock is aphids. Look under the leaves of your purchase for little clusters of yellow, green or reddish insects, and avoid buying any infested starts. Other pests, like cabbage loopers, can be less obvious. Watch out for these white butterflies with black spots on their wings while shopping. If the looper butterflies are present, there is a good chance you may be purchasing cole crop starts already infested with looper eggs, which is a recipe for crop disaster!

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